Thomas Partey will turn Arsenal into title contenders again, says Francis Cagigao, the man who scouted him for SIX YEARS, found Cesc Fabregas… and once had to sing his way out of a Ukrainian airport after being robbed
- Francis Cagigao left his role as Arsenal’s head of global scouting in September
- He played a major role in the purchase of Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid
- Cagigao believes the £45m midfielder will lift Arsenal to the next level
- Super scout spent 24 years with Arsenal, unearthing a number of gems
- Cesc Fabregas, Mikel Arteta and Robin van Persie among his successes
- Cagigao also speaks about efforts to sign Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique
New Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey could be the signing that turns them back into title contenders, says the man who watched him for the club over the course of six years.
Francis Cagigao left Arsenal this September before Partey arrived – departing as head of global scouting via mutual consent after 24 years.
‘He is a player that we pursued for a long time and strongly recommended over the last few years,’ he says of Arsenal’s £45million midfielder who will debut on Saturday against Manchester City.
Arsenal’s head of global scouting Francis Cagigao left the club in September after 24 years
One of Cagigao’s final recommendations was newly-signed midfielder Thomas Partey
‘I first watched him about six years ago playing for Almeria on loan from Atletico Madrid and he was more box-to-box, attacking even.
‘I think we will see him with the shackles off because he did very much play in a constricted midfield unit [at Atletico].
‘He could be the final piece of the jigsaw that makes Arsenal challenge for the title.’
He says this in a thick London accent – he went to a school that overlooked Stamford Bridge where he first went to watch football with his Galician dad – and with all the passion of an Arsenal fan.
And he also speaks with the authority of someone who played a part in Arsenal signing everyone from ‘Invincible’ Lauren and ‘pioneer’ Cesc Fabregas, to the young Brazilians Gabriel Magalhaes and Gabriel Martinelli in the current squad.
Cagigao the player was spotted as a 16-year-old in the Isthmian League for Wembley FC and spent two seasons at Arsenal, winning the FA Youth Cup in 1988, before signing for Barca B.
Cagigao and his team watched Atletico midfielder Partey for six years before buying him
Cagigao believes Partey ‘could be the final jigsaw piece’ to allow Mikel Arteta’s team to challenge for the Premier League title
‘I was a mediocre professional,’ he says of a career that saw him play at the Nou Camp when Barcelona’s second string used the first team arena, and at Roots Hall on loan for Southend United.
On work experience back at Arsenal in the late nineties, working with their Under 16s while taking his UEFA badges, he was asked by Arsene Wenger to become part of a global scouting network.
It was a steep learning curve. One early mission to Ukraine ended with him trapped in a Kiev airport.
‘I was in a restaurant when I had my credit card, wallet, money and passport all stolen with my jacket,’ he recalls.
‘It was an absolute odyssey trying to get back home. In the end I had to spend four days in Ukraine.
Cesc Fabregas was among a number of Arsenal stars Cagigao was able to unearth
Fabregas paid tribute to Cagigao when he left his post at Arsenal in September
‘At one point I could neither fly out of, nor leave, the airport. I was in a sort of no-man’s lands so I just decided to sit on my suitcase singing a song loudly until someone came along and asked what I was doing there?
‘I remember waking people up at Arsenal at three in the morning and saying: listen, you got to get me out of here.’
While still juggling a coaching job with Spanish third division side Lemos, and scouting for Wenger, he spotted Lauren playing as a midfielder for Levante and recommended him to Arsenal as a right-back.
‘He had all the qualities of a modern day full-back,’ he says of the recommended positional change.
‘It was the same years later with Hector Bellerin who was playing right wing with Barcelona’s Under 16s.’
The Spaniard worked on deals to sign both Mikel Arteta (L) and Gabriel Martinelli (R) as players
Cagigao says Arsenal wanted to sign Barcelona’s Gerard Pique (L) and Lionel Messi (R)
Fabregas became the jewel in Arsenal’s crown having glittered in a Barcelona youth team that included two other targets: Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.
Of Fabregas he says: ‘I knew I was watching a boy who had a GPS in his brain and played with a maturity beyond his years.
‘His decision-making was near perfect already. He was a 15-year-old who had to get stronger but he already had great stamina.
‘He had to add a little bit more malice in the attacking third and improve defensively but he had all the basic attributes of an outstanding playmaker.
‘I think we can talk about Cesc being a pioneer. This was the first time we saw a player that young arrive at Arsenal from a big club which showed how strong our scouting department was. And obviously we had the figurehead that was Arsene.’
Cagigao worked closely with Arsene Wenger during the Frenchman’s long tenure as manager
The mentions of Wenger pepper Cagigao’s recollections. And there is huge respect for someone he believes managed to modernise the club while still honouring its traditions.
‘Arsene was somebody who didn’t have time, but made time for people.
‘One of the reasons I didn’t leave in moments when I could have, was the relationship with the manager, and with [former chief scout] Steve Rowley who was brilliant for the club.
Arsenal’s former super scout on…
The epitome of a natural footballer. Arsene said once that he would walk into the changing room and he would see a lot of players on the physio table, getting massages, doing warm-ups and taping themselves up for I don’t know how long, and Santi would just come in put his gear on and he would be out there with the ball already.
Transitions are never easy. Arsene was and is a legend at Arsenal. Unai joined in a difficult transitional period and reached the Europa League final and missed out on Champions League qualification by just one point.
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I don’t think we should just look at transfer fees. UK clubs are investing and working very well at academy level and developing a lot of good young domestic players also.
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UK clubs cannot sign the best European talent at 16 and 17 anymore. How that impacts we will have to wait and see. It could allow domestic players to come through even though we are already seeing that they are, and the other side of the argument is that we are taking away that competitive edge from the young domestic players where they have to compete with top imports. It’s too early to judge. I’m not in favour of the process. I don’t believe in boundaries and walls, I tend to think that we’d got beyond that in 2020.
‘Whatever player we brought to the club whether he was a 16-year-old from Barcelona, or an established professional we would sit him down in front of Arsene Wenger, he insisted on it.
‘And if you’re investing in young talent you need to have a brave manager who while he is fighting for titles is prepared to throw those young players in.’
Wenger’s pull was not enough for Arsenal to bring home all their targets.
‘There are players that get away every season and it’s public knowledge that Messi, Pique, Juan Mata and others were very close,’ Cagigao says.
‘In Messi’s case work permit issues insured that we could not get as close as we wanted.’
There is plenty of nostalgia in this chat. But ask him for his most satisfying recruit and he comes up with a player who only left the club this summer.
‘It took 10 years but we got there in the end,’ he says of the capture of Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez now at Aston Villa.
‘I first saw him in Iquique, a small city in Chile in a South American Under-17 tournament in 2009.
‘The important part of his story is how tenacious and driven he was to show everyone that he is a top-level goalkeeper who has now left a lot of money at the club.’
He’s pragmatic over the future of his craft. On the debate between old and new methods he says: ‘You need to have live scouting, video scouting, and data analysis. What are the percentages? That depends on the traditions and culture of each club.
‘But we must never lose the essence of the game. Which is certainly not the Peaky Blinders cap, long coat and worn boots, but it is the need for the technical viewpoint of a knowledgeable, experienced trained eye, with a track record.’
And someone who is working 100 per cent for the club, presumably? ‘Exactly, someone who doesn’t have vested interests elsewhere. It’s very important for clubs to control the market; not for the market to control the clubs.’
He fits this job description better than anyone after two decades of experience so why have Arsenal let him go?
His departure coincided, but was not part of, the club’s recent round of redundancies that took its toll on the scouting and recruitment department.
‘I came to an agreement with the club. You can’t afford to be bitter because it leads to a very negative process,’ he says.
‘I want very much for Arsenal to do well and I believe strongly that that they have, if not the strongest squad in the premier league, there are very few better. And they have a very talented manager.’
Gabriel Magalhaes was one of the final transfers Cagigao was involved in before his exit
That strong squad is in part down to him. Playing behind Partey this season will be centre-back Magalhaes – ‘a team effort,’ he says of the defender recruited by his department. And there will be minutes for young forward Martinelli, another diamond mined by Cagigao.
‘If you can sign a player from Ituano in the Brazilian fourth division that tells you that the players are still out; they just need to be found,’ he says.
‘Good players are a constant but it’s a question of investing and having the resources and the right people to find them.’
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